Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Another Perpective on the Coolness of Fonzie

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

At last year’s Media Ecology Association conference at Santa Clara University in California, I was having lunch with a bunch of academics I like. One of them was from Milwaukee, and she was commenting how she is now part of a growing protest in that town.

Seems the Powers That Be had decided that, much in the way Philadelphia created a statue to Rocky Balboa, Milwaukee would be well served by similarly immortalizing Arthur Fonzarelli, more commonly known by the nickname, Fonzie, or just The Fonz.

This makes little sense to me. While the Fonz was possibly the most lasting character from the series of shows from the ‘70s and ‘80s that took place in the ‘50s (Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Joanie Loves Chachi), he still seems as strange a choice to me as Potzie or Ralph Malph. Most of the other characters of the shows, such as the Mr. & Mrs. Cunningham (homemaker and hardware store owner, respectively), Laverne and Shirley (factory workers), whichever Al (diner owner), and even Carmine (dance instructor), were basically hard working, lower middle class members of society who strove for something better. They may have been part of the sweating masses, but they were more together for it.

Fonzie was looked on as the epitome of hip, but in essence he was exactly the opposite. Yes, girls lusted for him, he could be scary (though less so as seasons wore on), and he could turn on a jukebox with his fist, but whatever coolness he had was more because of the acting of Henry Winkler, who portrayed him, than was his character.

Let me backtrack a bit. In the first season of Happy Days, when they still used Bill Haley & His Comet’s “Rock Around the Clock” as the show’s theme, I actually do believe the Fonz was cool. He wore a light-colored cloth jacket and was seen marginally as a recurring character that was more flavor than focus; he just “was”. Whatever happened, he contained his composure, and just went with it. He swaggered, but never rushed. Fonzie was comfortable in his own skin. That is part of why he became so popular so fast with the audience.

As the seasons wore on, the cloth jacket was replaced by a leather one, and his personality changed way before he decided to become a teacher around the time he changed the language of culture, by going too far and literally “jumping the shark.”

When one is truly “cool,” one does not care what other people think of them, which is the essence of coolosity. The need to show off is not present because, well, there is no need. This attitude is made pointedly in an episode of Family Guy when Stewie Griffin is trying to prove to Brian that he can get accepted by the cool kids on campus. His entire attitude is “Whatever” followed by the acknowledgement of the ultimate coolness: “Hey, I’m wearing a short sleeved shirt over a long sleeved shirt over a short sleeved shirt.” Of course, he is not truly cool because he has “played” the issue, putting on the situation, yet still nails the perceived attitude. Ironically, one episode of the show centers on a religion formed by patriarch Peter Griffin based on the coolness of the Fonz.

Back on Happy Days, as the seasons wore on with Fonzie becoming more of the focus of the show, becoming the de facto main character (as Michael J. Fox’s character did in Family Ties), he quickly lost his cool. Suddenly he was rushing places, losing his temper, needing to defend his manhood from others, and unable to admit he was “wrr-rr-rr…wrr-rr-rr…” wrong. But the biggest positing that he was no longer the cool icon was that so many episodes focused on his fear of being perceived by others as not being cool.

Coolness is something that just “is.” As soon as one is worried about others losing their perception of being seen as cool, one no longer can be considered that. For example, I have more respect for someone who goes to a punk show dressed in non-punk gear but has the attitude and dedication, than someone who is wearing a ‘hawk and leather-with-spikes. Punking out does not make someone punk any more than believing oneself is cool makes them cool.

What truly makes one cool (or even punk in the example cited above) is not focusing on perception. One has to truly let the vanity part of the ego go, and just be. When one reaches this point, and can let go of egocentricities, one can reach higher levels of true coolness. Look at Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. What made it so potent was he did not let his own ego block his energy. Fans and writers were wondering how could he possibly be accepted as the Joker after Jack “Wait’ll they get a load of me!” Nicholson. By the time Ledger gave his fearless performance, Nicholson seemed closer to Caesar Romero’s turn than Ledger’s. Ledger’s Joker, along with his deftness in Brokeback Mountain showed just how cool he was.

To sum up, the Fonz was not cool because he needed to consistently defend his coolness. With that defensiveness, he showed that he was not being himself because he was trying to portray an image rather than be himself. Hence, his credibility was lacking, and thus was not cool. I agree with my Milwaukee colleague: putting up a statue of the Fonz, as they did on August 19, 2008, does not symbolize a positive image. I say put one up of a glove on a beer bottle. That’s the true icon of what makes that city proud.

This particular blog was also "insisted upon itself" by my finding the following comic strip by Ray Billingsley, as I was sorting my files:
As a final note to all General Semanticists, my apologies for my use of the verb “to be.”

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